Dominating Sunday’s Metropolitan cover of the New York Times, an in-depth piece by Sam Kestenbaum delved into — as the print edition put it — “Preaching the Gospel According to Trump.”
Unfortunately, that yawner of a headline failed to rise to the level of the story.
Kestenbaum’s nuanced, carefully crafted profile of New Jersey pastor Jonathan Cahn deserved a better, more eloquent title.
The headline on the online version of the piece is more precise and closer to the mark:
#MAGA Church: The Doomsday Prophet Who Says the Bible Predicted Trump
A charismatic pastor in New Jersey (who also calls himself a rabbi) leads a church fixated on end times. Before the apocalypse, however, he’s fitting in a trip to Mar-a-Lago.
Kestenbaum’s colorful opening sets the scene:
On a Sunday morning at Beth Israel Worship Center in Wayne, N.J., a bearded pastor named Jonathan Cahn stood on an elevated platform, gazing over a full house. Stage lights shifted from blue to white as the backing band played a drifting melody. Two men hoisted curled rams’ horns and let out long blasts.
“Some of you have been saying you want to live in biblical times,” Mr. Cahn said, pacing behind a lectern. Then he spread his hands wide. “Well, you are.”
Sitting at the end of a sleepy drive an hour from Manhattan, Beth Israel may look like any common suburban church. But the center has a highly unusual draw. Every weekend, some 1,000 congregants gather for the idiosyncratic teachings of the church’s celebrity pastor, an entrepreneurial doomsday prophet who claims that President Trump’s rise to power was foretold in the Bible.
Mr. Cahn is tapping into a belief more popular than may appear.
Keep reading, and Kestenbaum — a contributing editor at The Forward as well as a regular writer for the Times — demonstrates his religion writing experience as he explores Cahn’s theology.
The journalist interviews Cahn himself and gives him a chance to explain himself in his own words. The writer also also provides important context on the pastor’s personal background and religious influences, including both his Jewish background and his charismatic Christian beliefs after his conversion.
Really, the story is filled with so many important details that it would be impossible to boil them all down in a short post such as this.
But sections such as this stand out:
Mr. Cahn likes to say he is surprised by his own success, preferring supernatural explanations. When speaking, he begins slowly but picks up pace, almost falling over his words with excitement. He also has a flair for the theatrical tale. Lounging in a back office at the church, surrounded by framed paintings of biblical landscapes, he sprinkled enchanted anecdotes in conversation.
How did he raise money for his first church? “A mysterious American Indian appeared with a check for $150,000. They called him Wahoo. God instructed him to come to me.”
How were his books received? “With the first book, a hurricane flooded our building. For the release day of the new one, my appendix exploded. People called it spiritual warfare.”
He even presents his family life in magical terms. He has three children and describes his relationship to his Brazilian wife, Renata, as a “supernatural love story.”
Concerning Cahn’s theology, paragraphs such as these are extremely helpful:
Beth Israel draws from the Charismatic movement, which has roots in Pentecostalism, and also incorporates elements of Messianic Judaism. Congregants alternate between calling Mr. Cahn their pastor or rabbi, and their place of worship a church or synagogue.
Services are also held on Friday evenings, at the start of the Jewish Sabbath, and Mr. Cahn arrives to the building just moments before worship begins. By the time he bursts on stage with a headset microphone, the crowd is fully primed. A dance troupe of women, dressed in red and waving scarfs, prance nearby as the crowd sways in song.
During a recent evening service, some 500 congregants gathered as helpers lit traditional Shabbat candles near the foot of the stage. Mr. Cahn dropped Hebrew into his sermon, and at times, the crowd haltingly joined in to pronounce the foreign words themselves. In a middle row, one elderly woman pulled out a worn Bible with stickered pages, the margins filled with notes from previous lectures.
By no means is this a puff piece about Cahn, but it seems fair — evidenced by the fact that his publisher shared the link on Twitter:
A friend on the Godbeat raised a question about this paragraph of the story:
Roxanne Mangal, a middle-aged woman in a flowery blouse, joined the table. She said the pastor had healed her of a terrible illness. Joining Beth Israel also brought wealth. “My income tripled,” she said. “It quadrupled.”
The friend’s concern, expressed in a Facebook message to me:
I asked—and did not receive an answer—as to whether the female parishioner of Cahn's who is described as being "healed" by the pastor might actually have said that it was God working THROUGH Cahn who did the healing. You and I know this is more likely to be the case.
More from my friend, who did not wish to be named:
I believe it was VERY IMPORTANT that Kestenbaum mentioned the estrangement between Cahn and his family over Cahn's embrace of Jesus as the Messiah. It seems one can be almost ANY kind of Jew these days — Jewish/Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, whatever — so long as you are not a Jew who believes in Jesus. That's just not fair, IMHO. I knew a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who was pursued by the Nazis despite his embrace of Jesus. We Jews are all in the same boat.
Overall, this is a fascinating, compelling piece that certainly would be worth your time to read. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the piece after you get a chance to read it.